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American re-visions: it’s all about us

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Wednesday, 6 June 2007


God has a special providence for fools, drunks and the United States of America, Otto von Bismarck, att.

Dr Peter West suggested in On Line Opinion on June 4, 2007 (“Visions of America”) that Americans are self-obsessed ignoramuses, with distinctively American problems. As one undertook his journey through a particularly gnarled, tormented America, this monstrosity seemed to lose its unique features. America, in short, became just like everyone else.

Commentators accuse “Americans” (a term that always needs qualifying) of the exceptionalist vice: “we were here first, we discovered this first” and so forth. This “exceptionalism” has been sustained as energetically from the outside as it has by friends of the United States (Alexis de Tocqueville).

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More negative portrayals have also been forthcoming (Franz Kafka’s Amerika suffices on this score). G.K. Chesterton once wrote that United States was “the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed”, that creed being the Declaration of Independence. The failure of working-class radicalism to take root in the US, the absence of anything closely resembling a worker’s party, added to this myth.

West’s commentary makes a small contribution to this enterprise: the outsider looking (or perhaps staring) in, somewhat disturbed by a perverted vision, a disturbing array of museum pieces. Similarities are obscured, and ultimately ignored. America is the world’s freakshow, modernity perverted, dislocated. Religion co-exists with the separation of church and state; the lethal injection keeps company with an obsession with legal fairness and representation.

But we must not fall into the trap of doing what Americans are accused of, albeit in reverse. We consider them exceptional, but negatively: exceptionally ignorant; exceptionally insular, sealed off from the stream of world civilisation. Common ground is negated. On either side of the divide in reading and writing on America, the sin is no less great.

Which of course, brings one to the point that West perhaps ignores. Do his travel descriptions outline genuine American phenomena, or global (perhaps Australian) ones? “Most Americans have never travelled outside [the] continental US bar a little trip to Hawaii and Puerto Rico.” Nothing strange there - sedentary living within a locality (a state, a county, a shire), even in this age of globalisation, can still be found. For many English living in the Oxford-Cambridge-London axis, a trip to the midlands is akin to, well, a trip by a Melbournian to Cooktown. There are farmers in Denmark’s Jutland who have rarely made it beyond the peninsula.

On American food: “not really food, most of the time.” West is incarnating Talleyrand on his arrival to Philadelphia here - to paraphrase: a country with 30 religions and one dish. This begs the question: what constitutes “American” food? Possibly ribs; in all probability the weighty burger (though West had the misfortune of consuming sawdust on this occasion).

Before arriving in Australia, this author had never known that sauerkraut, vindaloo and the magisterial pork roast could possibly be “Australian” given the claims made to those dishes by other nations but the world is full of culinary surprises. As for the “sweet” tooth - the popular sugar bowls that dot various towns across the Antipodes would give any self-respecting gourmand grief.

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Then of course, the perennial issue of knowledge versus ignorance. West’s commentary offers an Australian parallel, a national context.

Consider those Australian voters who dared back the One Nation juggernaut in the late 1990s. Until journalist Margot Kingston dared venture on a campaign trail with “Pauline”, the image was simple: voters in Queensland were overweight, “ignorant” and intellectually deficient, the refuse of globalisation.

Americans suffer a similar vote, albeit on a grander scale. The fact that Australia has been in the hands of a government less than aware of the outside world (till recently, climate change was as likely to get a fair hearing in Canberra as David Hicks), should be annotated in the margins of West’s travel brief.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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